NEW ORLEANS (AP) Tyreke Evans’ sore right knee – and long-term contract – gave him every reason to sit out the final two games of a losing season with the Pelicans.
Yet even as coaches and trainers encouraged him to rest, Evans was having none of it. Instead, he played some of his most relentless, productive and crowd-pleasing basketball of the season.
He capped it off with 25 points and 10 assists on Wednesday night, and New Orleans closed out a difficult, injury riddled season with a 105-100 victory over the playoff-bound Houston Rockets.
”I just want to have fun, man,” Evans said. ”It was my last game this year. … I was hurt. I could have easily sat out, taken the back seat, but coach talked to us about finishing strong and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Two nights earlier, Evans scored a career-high 41 points in a stunning victory over Oklahoma City. Against Houston, he enlivened the crowd with end-to-end drives, high razzle-dazzle dribbles and an array of midair contortions in order to get off shots in traffic near the basket.
”He drove me crazy with some of his `uh-oh’ plays, but these last two games, I hope he gets player of the week,” coach Monty Williams said. ”We needed these two games to go into the summer. He stepped up big-time and carried the team.”
The Rockets, who had already locked up the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, rested James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. Still, the game was competitive as a number of role players sought to make the most of extended action.
Troy Daniels, a rookie guard out of VCU who’d scored only 20 points in 31 minutes all season, hit 6 3s and finished with a career-high 22 points.
”I was ready to get out there,” Daniels said. ”It shows the coach has a lot of faith in me. Obviously I have a lot of work to do and a lot of progress to make, but it was a good start for me to get my confidence up.”
Evans gave New Orleans the lead for good with a driving layup with 2:35 left, then sealed it with a powerful move in which he wedged his way between Jordan Hamilton and Josh Powell for a running, right-handed hook from the lane.
”It wasn’t just about, `We ain’t making the playoffs; let’s pack it up,”’ said guard Anthony Morrow, nodding at Evans. ”When a guy who signs a long-term deal still plays the last two games of the season the way he did, it says a lot about him.”
Austin Rivers added 18 points and Morrow 15 for the Pelicans, who shot 52.4 percent.
Neither team led by more than single digits. New Orleans had the largest lead at 90-81, but Houston responded with a late 11-4 run that included 3s by Hamilton and Daniels, then took a brief 100-99 lead when Hamilton stole the ball and converted a fast-break lay-in with 2:51 left.
Regular Houston starters Terrence Jones, who had 17 points and eight rebounds, and Patrick Beverly, who had 14 points, also played as if it mattered. Hamilton hit four 3s on his way to 14 points and Donatas Motiejunas had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
”We weren’t going to change in the standings, so we played a bunch of guys that we hadn’t played before,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. ”It’s time to get some guys comfortable.”
Dwight Howard was among a minority of players who looked like as if he was merely going through the motions. He was 1 of 5 shooting, including a missed 3 after which he allowed a smirk, and grabbed four rebounds while turning the ball over three times. But Howard had more important things to think about with the fourth-seeded Rockets, who won 54 games this season, starting a playoff series against Portland on Sunday.
Notes: After missing the past two games with a left ankle injury, Pelicans guard Brian Roberts played 4 minutes, long enough to make three free throws. That got him to 125 made foul shots this season, qualifying him for the official NBA lead in free throw shooting percentage at 93.9 percent. ”To have that, that’s something that’s special and something I’ll never forget,” Roberts said. … Pelicans rookie C Jeff Withey tied a career high with five blocks. … The loss was Houston’s first against the Pelicans in four meetings this season.